Education Law

What’s the Difference Between Bullying and Harassment at School?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
If other kids are threatening, pushing around, or picking on your child, is the behavior bullying or harassment? Does the difference matter?

Your child’s grades have suddenly taken a dive. Absences have piled up. Moods are unpredictable. Finally, you learn the reason. Other kids are targeting your child with any or all of the tools of schoolyard bullying. Or is it more than bullying? Might it be criminal harassment or illegal discrimination?

Many people—including school officials and parents—use the terms “bullying” and “harassment” interchangeably. There’s quite a bit of overlap between the words, but there are also important distinctions between them—distinctions that can affect how you or school officials address the problem. In general, bullying is misbehavior that can lead to school discipline. Harassment is a crime that could lead to juvenile court. And if harassment involves racial, sexual, or other discrimination, schools have a legal obligation to deal with it effectively (more on that below).

What Is Bullying?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines bullying as unwanted physical, verbal, or other aggressive behavior by an individual or a group against another youngster that:

  • causes distress or harm (including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm)
  • has been repeated or is likely to happen again, and
  • involves an imbalance of power—which could be due to differences in size, age, or even popularity—between the bully or bullies and the victim.

Bullying can take many forms, including:

  • teasing or name-calling
  • spreading rumors or posting embarrassing pictures on social media
  • threatening
  • shoving, and
  • more severe assault.

States have passed anti-bullying laws that require or encourage schools to develop policies for dealing with the problem.

What Is Criminal Harassment?

Criminal laws tend to define harassment as conduct that’s intended to annoy, provoke, or threaten, or in another way cause the victim emotional distress. Laws throughout the country define several forms of criminal harassment. One example is cyberstalking—using texting, social media, email, or other forms of electronic communication to harass someone.

What is Discriminatory Harassment?

Harassment can also be a form of discrimination. Federal civil rights laws prohibit all schools receiving federal funds (essentially all public schools and many private ones) from discriminating against students because of their race, national origin, gender, or disability. Some states go further than federal law, by outlawing discrimination based on additional characteristics like as sexual orientation and gender identity. Schools have a legal obligation to prevent or stop discriminatory harassment when it's so severe, widespread, or persistent that it interferes with the victim’s ability to take part in educational activities or opportunities.

Why Distinctions Matter

It’s not hard to see that some forms of bullying could qualify as criminal or discriminatory harassment—for instance, when bullies start slamming their victims against lockers or target autistic kids for their disability. To confuse matters more, some states have passed laws that make bullying and cyberbullying a crime, and those laws often use the same language as anti-harassment statutes.

But it can be important to distinguish between bullying and harassment. If you live in a state that doesn’t have anti-bullying laws, you should know whether your child’s tormentors (or your own child) have done something that could be criminal harassment. And if your child is a victim of discriminatory harassment, the school has to take certain steps to respond to your complaints—or risk being sued under federal law. (It’s also possible to file a personal injury lawsuit against a school for not protecting your child from bullying, but there are more hurdles.)

Talking to a Lawyer

If you child has been the victim or is accused of bullying or harassment, you might want to talk with a lawyer to discuss your options. (Also be sure to check out the resources mentioned earlier in this article.) Dealing directly with the school or school district might be enough in your situation. Or it might be appropriate to get an education lawyer—or even a criminal lawyer or the police—involved. If your child was harmed because school officials didn’t act to stop bullying, a lawyer could advise you about the requirements for filing a personal injury lawsuit against the school. And if school officials haven’t responded to your complaints about discriminatory harassment, an education or civil rights lawyer could give you information about the possibility of suing under federal law. To sum it up, a lawyer experienced in the educational setting should be able to advise you of the options.

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